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Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward (大躍進) was a campaign by the communist government of the People's Republic of China from 1958 to early 1960 aimed at using mainland China's plentiful supply of cheap labour to rapidly industrialise the country.


During the 1950s, the Chinese had carried out a program of land distribution coupled with industrialisation under state ownership with grudging technical assistance from the Soviet Union. By the mid 1950s, the situation in mainland China had somewhat stabilised, and the immediate threat from the wars in Korea (US) and Vietnam (France) had receded. The Chinese capitalists had been expropriated in 1952-1953, left wing oppositionists imprisoned at the same time, and the remaining Kuomintang on the mainland had been eliminated. For the first time in generations, China seemed to have a strong and stable national government.

However, Mao Zedong had become alarmed by soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's term since the Twentieth Congress. He perceived that far from "catching up and overtaking" the West, the Soviet economy was being allowed to fall behind. Uprisings had taken place in East Germany, Poland and Hungary, and Khrushchev was seeking "Peaceful Co-existence" with what the Chinese regarded as imperialist western powers. These policies meant for Mao that the PRC had to be prepared to "go it alone".

The Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward borrowed elements from the history of the USSR in a uniquely Chinese combination. Forced collectivisation from Stalin's "third period"; Stalin's ultra-Centralisation with an exaggerated cult of the leader; Stakhanovism from the early 1930s; the "people's guards" Khrushchev had created in 1959; and the uniquely Chinese policy of establishing communes as relatively self-sufficient economic units, incorporating light industry and construction projects.

An experimental commune was established in Honan early in 1958, and soon spread throughout the country. The entire population was mobilised to produce one commodity, symbolic of industrialisation - steel.

The hope was to industrialise by making use of the massive supply of cheap labour and avoid having to import heavy machinery. Small backyard steel furnaces were built in every commune and harvests were allowed to rot in the fields while peasants produced "turds" of cast iron made out of scrap. Very often valuable farm implements were smelted for steel. Sometimes even factories, schools and hospitals abandoned their work to smelt iron. Simultaneously, the peasants were collectivised.

The outcome

The plan failed disastrously. The collective farms were provided with ample food via communal canteens to ease the demands of agricultural labour. But stocks were soon exhausted, and by the time food ran out, it was too late to rescue the harvest producing massive famine. The steel project was extended to "socialist miracles" in every branch of industry. The withdrawal of Soviet technical personnel aggravated a shortage of expertise. Ten million people died in one year as a result of disastrous harvests, and an estimated 30 million between 1958 and 1962.

Mao Zedong admitted some guilt for the famines but blamed most of it on bad weather. Meanwhile, schools taught the children that the Great Leap Forward had been a success, and their parents dared not tell them otherwise.

Despite the risks to their carreers and their lives, some Communist Party members openly laid blame for the disaster at the feet of the Party leadership and took it as proof that China must rely more on education, acquiring technical expertise and applying borgeouis methods in developing the economy. It was principally to crush this opposition that Mao launched his Cultural Revolution in early 1966.

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